Extremely loud & incredibly close
There is something about JSF – something about his youth, his methods or his approach to literature – that puts me off. While I am reading his books, I’m totally engaged, interested, caught; looking back though, they feel unsubstantial – like there’s more shtick than feeling, more glaze than meatloaf – and I’m left weirdly unsatisfied.
Anyways, the beginning is as good a place as any to start. 9-year-old Oskar Schell has lost his father in the 9/11 attacks – a day he constantly (and obviously) refers to as the worst day. Grief stricken little boy should make for some schmaltzy drama, but Oskar has no time for that – he is too busy being the embodiment of obnoxious precocity – obnoxious and unrealistic. His correspondence with various authors and scientists is impressive, his knowledge – waaay beyond his years and his freedom of movement – every kid’s dream. One day he finds a key in a vase in his father’s closet and obsessively begins a search for the person (someone with the name Black, since that was written on the envelope) who might give him a clue, another insight into his father’s life. The story of his quest is interspersed with letters: from his grandfather (who has abandoned his family before his father was born) to his father and from his grandmother to him; letters which tell of this couple’s relationship filled with guilt, silences and misunderstandings.
The Schells are a family ruled by tragedy and violence: the bombing of Dresden (when the grandparents’ families died and they lost everything) and the 9/11 bombings, when Oskar’s world came crashing down around him.
There are passages that really stir up something in you, but there’s also triteness – a little too much of it. Oskar’s favorite expression – heavy boots – is childish, disconnected from his precocious self and overused. Also – he invents – he lets his mind wander and tries to come up with new things, things that might make life easier, things that might have saved his dad. But it’s not a factual invention, he never holds a nail and hammer in his hands – it’s more like day dreaming and wishing for an undo button for life. Everything and everyone is too eccentric and outlandish to expect to relate with – everything except perhaps the feeling of loss and sorrow. Thomas Schell’s Sr. pain and melancholic presence felt the least contrived, even if the reason for his shtick (“I don’t speak“) is just as forced as anything else.
Mr. Foer tries to pack as many things as possible in his book: photos, graphics, empty pages and pages where the writing runs over itself until it becomes illegible, changing timelines, alternating stories and references to other authors & works (sampling – as he calls it in the beginning, although his book is more along the lines of this rather than A Whiter Shade of Pale*). Oskar is a clear shout out to Gunter Grass’s Oscar Matzerath (down to the fact that Mr. Foer’s hero carries around a tambourine) and, in the beginning at least, he made me think a lot about the kid in The curious incident of the dog in the night-time; the Dresden bombing reminded me of Slaughterhouse-Five, the YES and NO tattoos are straight out of The night of the hunter (I love that movie) and New York raised to the level of main character is very Auster-esque. But Mr. Foer doesn’t only acknowledge these references (and probably the many others I didn’t catch), he seems to embrace and flaunt them – and somehow, his attitude makes it all OK. It might be a patronizing and slightly soulless little book, but it is a perfect product of the day & age. And, just like any other bit of junk food that I come across (umm…is it wrong to mention cheese pastries when talking about a book? Because I think I just did 😀 ), I swallowed it whole and enjoyed it before I could think too much.
*I’m sure there’s bigger and better in the sampling department out there, but I have a thing for this song and a recent House episode reminded me of it.